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Windows Phone 8.1 features revealed early

Microsoft plans to launch Windows Phone 8.1 in the near future as a major update to match Windows 8.1 on desktop. The company recently seeded an early developer version for testing and thankfully plenty of features have already been revealed.

One developer has catalogued his findings on Reddit, and it’s clear than Microsoft’s main aim is to merge mobile and desktop further in order to make the idea of ‘everything Windows’ more appealing. For starters, there’s support for “universal apps” which hints at apps for Windows 8.1 desktop being usable on Windows Phone 8.1 and vice versa. Developers will be able to build apps for Windows Store and the Windows Phone Store using shared HTML and Javascript.

The Reddit user and Windows Phone developer also discovered that Microsoft is splitting the combined Music+Video app in two and adding a new Podcast app to appease fans.

Microsoft is also looking to make changes to messaging by offering users the chance to change their default messaging app. Google has also done something similar with Android recently, allowing the user to use Hangouts or alternatives as a default for text-based communications. A screenshot shows a new option for ‘receive texts using’ which offers the chance to change which app is responsible for texting on the phone.

There’s also support for VPN (Virtual Private Network) which will please business and IT users, an app called Battery Power Sense which aims to improve battery life and the option to (finally) install apps to an SD card in order to save internal storage space. Interestingly, Microsoft has removed Facebook integration and added iCloud account support, whilst deep Twitter integration is still present. Of course, these observations have been made when using the developer kit so there may just be a bug causing Facebook to be missing.

Finally, Microsoft is making changes to multitasking for Windows Phone. Early reports state that the back button no longer closes an app, but leaves it in the background for later use – just like Windows 8 – and that there is also a new way to close apps: swipe downwards on the screen. In our experience, Windows Phone’s multitasking is still a way behind Android in terms of simplicity, so we’re hoping Microsoft gets it right this time.

One of the most talked-about features of Windows Phone 8.1 has been a Siri-like personal assistant codenamed “Cortana”. This feature doesn’t appear to be in the developer preview and so we’re still no closer to knowing a great deal about it.

Microsoft will unveil the final Windows Phone 8.1 preview at its BUILD conference in April.